At first glance, it may seem to those who live outside Syria -especially those with nationalist ideologies- that the Iranian interventions in Syria are only an aid to an ally who is important to remain strong, who is of course the head of the regime, Bashar al-Assad, but those who closely follow details and events of the situation on the ground will quickly realize that those interventions and Iranian existence in Syria is not only about preserving Assad in office, but also restoring the glories of the past through various possible ways, starting by the military presence to the economic investments, and last but not least, the Iranian cultural centers that have turned into centers for the spreading Shiism in Syria.
In June 2018, Foreign Policy published an article about the scale of Iranian investments in Syria over 7 years of protests that turned into a civil war, in which the international powers overlap, at the time, the American magazine noted that Iran’s investments exceeded billions of dollars, and included interlocking military and economic efforts, during which Iran trained militias from across the Middle East and South Asia and deployed them in Syria, the magazine quoted the former Iranian diplomat and U.S. resident Mansour Farhang saying “Iran has spent at least $30 billion in Syria, in the form of military and economic assistance,”, while Nadeem Shehadeh, a researcher at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, estimated that Iran’s total spending in Syria over the past seven years was $105 billion.
In general, Iranian influence in Syria has penetrated so much in a way that can no longer be overlooked, starting from the military presence that takes the approval of regime’s head as a pretext for its presence there, to the investment deals that Iranian companies have obtained directly in recent months, to the control of the joints of the Industry and trade in Syria with long-term agreements, the aim of all these moves in Syria -according to the U.S. Institute for War Studies- is to ensure the continuation of Iran’s vital interests as well as Tehran’s influence in the region, even if the Syrian regime collapses completely, in pursuit of a larger goal which is taking Syria as a base for its operations in the Middle East in the absence of the Syrian opposition, to impose full control over the entire Syrian region and establish a ground corridor from Iran to Lebanon via Iraq and Syria.
Historical Context: 3 Decades of Coalition push the Iranian Ambitions
In order to understand Iran’s role in Syria, historical and political contexts must be taken into account, where Iran sees regime’s survival as a guarantee of its interests in Syria, as shown in statements by Iranian officials such as the Iranian man of religion and the head of the strategic headquarters of “Ammar” for soft wars, Mahdi Ta’ib, “Iran should continue to support fighters in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, and Yemen, even at the expense of the strength of the Iranian people” he said on the 3rd of March 2015.
For nearly 3 decades, Syria has been Iran’s main ally in the Middle East, and given the importance of this ally to the Iranian interests, starting cooperating against Iran’s regional enemies such as Israel and Saudi Arabia, as well as Tehran’s need for influence on the Syrian territory to facilitate weapon transfers to Hezbollah in Lebanon, Iran has been pushed to be the first ally and supporter of Damascus over the past 8 years, on several levels, until Iran’s role became unmistakably overwhelming and clear.
Al-Quds Legion and Hezbollah, a Strong Military Presence
From the very first moment of the Syrian war, Iran based its military interventions on the joint defense agreement signed between both countries in 2006, at the time, the details of the agreement were not specified and it was signed against what they called “joint threats”, but Iranian Defense Minister Mustafa Mohammad Najjar said that “Iran considers Syria’s security as its own security, and we consider our defense capabilities to be Syria’s,” according to the Foreign Policy, Iranian forces are currently operating through 11 military bases throughout Syria, in addition to 9 other Iranian-backed militia bases, distributed through the provinces of Aleppo, Homs, and Deir Ezzor, in addition to the presence of 15 bases of the Lebanese Hezbollah and checkpoints distributed on the border with Lebanon, as well as in Aleppo.
Al-Quds Legion of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards which is led by the well-known general, Qassim Soleimani, is considered as the most prominent military faction on the ground in Syria, which fights alongside the Syrian army and its military branches and provides them with military consultant.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights previously in 2015 revealed that “Soleimani” was the one who led the military operations in the triangle of northwest of Daraa, west of Rif Dimashq, and Quneitra countryside, with support from the regime forces supported by NDF forces, in the face of Jabhat al-Nusra fighters, and in cooperation with the first military figure in Hezbollah, Mustafa Badreddine.
The Syrian Observatory previously reported that the IRG has been involved in major clashes across the country, and it supported the Syrian regime forces against the rebel forces, also Tehran has deployed Shiite militias in Syria, including the Lebanese Hezbollah and several Pakistani and Afghan groups, “since January 2013, more than 2100 members of the Revolutionary Guard or their fighters have been killed in Syria, according to the Iranian Martyrs and Veterans Affairs Foundation
In October November 2018, sources of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights revealed that the Lebanese Hezbollah and the Iranian militias have returned use various ways to penetrate the Syrian areas such as Daraa and Deir Ezzor provinces, where sources indicated that individuals belong to the Lebanese Hezbollah and Iran are spreading in the Syrian south on the border with Jordan and the border with the occupied Syrian Golan, and they receive a generous financial reward, after forcing Hezbollah militias and the Iranians to withdraw from southern Syria to areas 40 kilometers away of the border with the occupied Syrian Golan and the Syrian-Jordanian border in June 2018, just before the start of the process of controlling Daraa province, but they have returned to form cells which imposes their influence in the area where Hezbollah has worked to form forces under names that do not show a relation to it in the Syrian south numbering more than 1600 people, and they are present in Daraa province and they receive about $300 a person.
As the war in Syria in its current form draws to a close, the “Voice of America” quoted Iranian sources that Iran now is forming a new militia in Syria with 1200 troops, directly supervised by Iranian military advisers, and according to the sources of the American website: “Officials from Iran and Syria have long been considering building such new military forces, and this was part of an agreement that Tehran and Damascus concluded in May 2017, where the formation of any coalition that aims to strengthen the resistance against Israel is welcome,” and the sources of the Syrian Observatory revealed that “the vast majority of fighters of the new militia are Syrian citizens who work in a deferent way than the other brigades formed in recent years with the aim of fight in Syria, Iran has been supporting them.”
In a report published by the Observatory on the 14th of April, 2019, the Syrian Observatory monitored the increase in number of volunteers among the Iranian forces and their militias to about 1385 men and young men of different ages, in west Euphrates area in Deir Ezzor countryside, while the number of volunteers in southern Syria reached to more than 2470 volunteers, which indicates the continuation of the Iranian expansion process inside Syria militarily, from the west of Euphrates River to the south of Syria and the border with the occupied Syrian Golan, while the Israeli warplanes carry out strikes and raids against their positions in the Syrian territory.
And beside the huge numbers of volunteers in the ranks of Iranian militias, the defections began to strike NDF militias in the “al-Mayadin” city in the eastern countryside of Deir Ezzor, and the money was the keyword of those defections, where the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights was informed by reliable sources that tens of NDF militias in al-Mayadin city in the eastern countryside of Deir Ezzor have joined the Iranian forces there, and in the details obtained by the Syrian Observatory: about 50 members defected from the NDF without informing leadership of the militia and joined the ranks of the Iranian Forces in al-Mayadin city, where the members justified their action by saying that they had not received their monthly dues for 5 months, while Iranian forces five their fighters monthly salaries of $150 in addition to food basket and medical services, the sources added to the Syrian Observatory that the NDF command has officially requested the Iranian forces to return the 50 members, which was rejected by the Iranian militias and considered the members as a part of their arsenal in Deir Ezzor.
Loans and Long-Term Agreements, Full Control Over the Economy
Over the past few years, Iran has strengthened its economic and trade agreements with the Syrian regime, controlling the joints of industry, agriculture, and trade, expanding its role across Syria, where the Iranian Vice President Ishaq Jahangiri revealed that “Tehran has reached” very important agreements on banking cooperation with Syria,” while Syrian Prime Minister Imad Khamis said that “long-term economic cooperation agreements have been signed with Iran, which includes the industry, trade, and agriculture,” the president Bashar Assad announced that “the economic agreements and projects reached with Iran have a strategic dimension and contribute to strengthening the resilience of Syria and Iran in the face of the economic war waged against them by some western countries.”
The size of Iranian controlled over the Syrian economy doesn’t stop at the banking and trade agreements, where in 2013, the Syrian authorities signed an agreement with Iran to activate a $3.6 billion credit facility to buy oil products and pay back over a long period of time, Iran has acquired investment shares inside Syria, which is part of an Iranian assistance package to Assad government, where both countries have concluded another agreement under which Damascus has secured another $1 billion credit facility to purchase products used to generate electricity and other goods from Iran, in addition to a barter agreement to help Syrian textile exports and some agricultural products such as olive oil and nuts, in January 2013 during a visit for the former Syrian Prime Minister Wael al-Halqi, Tehran agreed to deposit $500 million USD at the Central Bank of Syria.
In early 2017, the Iranian government and economic entities close to the IRG signed huge economic contracts with Syria, where Prime Minister “Khamis” signed 5 memorandums of understanding, including a license under which Iran obtained the right to set up a mobile operator in Syria, in addition to contracts to extract phosphate and other agreements that grant Iran 5000 hectares of agricultural land, 1000 hectares for the construction of oil and gas ports, and another agreement to provide Syrian land for livestock, according to the official news agency “IRNA”
Spreading Shiism and Demographic Change: Cultural Centers are cover ups
Since the eighties, Iran has worked on spreading Shiite centers through Iranian embassies around the world, and because of the privileged relations of Assad regime’s (both the father and the son) with Tehran; Syria has become one of the most prominent stations of Iranian activity to spread Shiism in the recent years through cultural and religious centers and the educational missions, with these relations strengthened in the post-2011 era, Tehran has stepped up its religious and cultural activities to consolidate its influence over civilians across Syria.
According to information obtained by the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, the Shiite activity in Iran has expanded through the establishment of 5 Iranian universities in recent years: “Teacher Education, al-Farabi, Islamic Azad, al-Mustafa, University of Islamic Doctrines”, as well as 40 private Shiite schools in the capital Damascus, and forcing the regime to open 10 sharia schools across Syria that teach the curriculum in accordance with Imam Jaafar al-Sadiq way, in an effort to change the structure of Syrian society and transform it into a society that is loyal to the regime of Wilayat al-Faqih, Iran has granted privileges to members of Iranian universities, such as scholarships to complete studies at Iranian universities.
Although the Great Prophet’s Complex was established in Latakia as the first Shiite cultural gathering in the city, its activity has expanded in recent years to include 7 schools and 50 institutes, and all over Syria, Iran has built and spread more than 500 Hussainiyas and 69 Shiite Huzeh, as well as opening tens of cultural centers across Syria to spread the Persian language through the Persian Language Lovers program, and what makes the activity of the Iranian Shiite worse is that these centers, Hussainiyas, and Huzehs operate independently without any interventions from any Syrian ministries, and they directly follow Iran’s Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance.
In late January 2019, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights published a report revealing Iran’s massive intellectual incursions through its forces in Syria, where sources of the Observatory confirmed that the Iranian forces continued their movements in carrying out more “Shiism” operations, including converting more of the population to the Shiism doctrine by paying money, providing aid, or trying to resolve outstanding issues for the population, also the Syrian Observatory published reports from reliable sources confirming that that the Azan is raised within the eastern countryside of Deir Ezzor according to the Shiite doctrine, and in the details obtained by the Syrian Observatory: al-Tammu neighborhood on the road of Qal’aat al-Rahba near the Power Station in al-Mayadin city, on the west banks of Euphrates River in the eastern countryside of Deir Ezzor, witnessed repeating the Azan in al-Tammu mosque, which the Iranians take it as their own in neighborhood the city, where the sources confirmed that the neighborhood includes more than 250 members of Iranian forces and militias of the Shiite sect, and they take the houses of the neighborhood as their residence out of about 800 members of these forces and militias, the Azan was heard in the neighborhood’s Mosque and the people noticed the words of the Azan were spoken according to the Shiite doctrine, which are repeated at all times of Azan, also this mosque where the Azan is being raised is considered a private mosque, and it is prevented for those who are not officers of members of the Iranians and followers of the Shiite sect to enter it.
The Syrian Observatory had monitored the arrival of tens of Asian families to the west of Euphrates River, coming to areas controlled by the Iranian forces and the militias loyal to them, within the eastern sector of Deir Ezzor countryside, and according to information obtained by the Observatory at the time: about 50 families of the Iranian and Afghan families arrived at al-Mayadin city west of Euphrates River, they are families of fighters in the Iranian and Afghan militias of the Shiite sect, also these families speak Persian and the languages spoken in Afghanistan, the sources confirmed that they were resettled in the area of Dahr al-Alwa in al-Mayadin city, in houses where the “Islamic State” seized previously under the pretext of “their owners are in the countries of the infidels”.
The transfer of these families is not a coincidence, it is a systematic process for the spreading of Iranian culture, Shiism, and demographic change in Syria, where reliable sources revealed to the Syrian Observatory, that the arrival of these families came after the Irani Revolutionary Guard opened the door of “enlisting” in its forces operating on the Syrian territory within Deir Ezzor Province for the first time in the countryside of Deir Ezzor province, and the sources confirmed that this is the first time the enlisting in the ranks of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard forces is opened, where previously the enlisting only included the Iranian-funded militias which are backed by the Iranian Forces, such as al-Nujabaa militias, Abu al-Fadl al-Abbas, and Hezbollah, while the majority of the Syrian volunteers are from the provinces of Deir Ezzor, Aleppo, and Rif Dimashq.
The Syrian Observatory monitored volunteer operations by former members who defected of the regime and by those wishing to “settle their situation”, as well as former fighters in the ranks of the regime and other citizens from Deir Ezzor province, the sources said that the majority of them from are al-Quriyah area in the countryside of “al-Mayadin,” also the process of luring citizens and volunteers is done through allocating monthly salaries, in addition to immunity from the regime forces and arrest, while the salaries vary from the west of Euphrates to the south of Syria, and they start from $150 USD to about $300 USD, according to the proximity of the volunteer to the Syrian border with the occupied Syrian Golan.
In the eastern countryside of Deir Ezzor, reliable sources confirmed to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights that Iran is seeking to maintain its control of “Tehran – Beirut” road; by establishing a popular base in the area that prevents its loss of the strategic road between the Iranian capital and the Lebanese capital, where the process is being carried out by attempting to restore the rights of the population whose property has been seized by volunteers or recruits of Iranian militias, to gain the friendliness and satisfaction of the population in order for them to join its ranks, Iran also distributes food, clothing, blankets, living and study supplies that have Persian writings, also the Iranian forces in their process of expanding are depending on preventing the regime forces from committing abuses against the population, pushing the people to resort to the Iranian Forces to collect their property and rights stolen from members of the regime forces and militiamen loyal to them.
According to sources of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights: the Shiite activity that Iran is working on in the eastern countryside of Deir Ezzor starts from several centers in different areas in Syria, perhaps the most prominent of which is the center of al-Imam al-Mahdi, which is run by a Shiite person named Mahmoud al-Adai al-Jubouri, and the main branch of this center is located in Sayyidah Zainab area in the capital Damascus, and has branches in all Syrian provinces which care under regime’s control, this center mainly works to spread Shiism in the area and holding seminars and Shiite rituals in its branches, and this center had honored several ministers of regime’s government and officers of the 4th Division of regime’s army, where this center honored the Minister of Justice Najm Hamad al-Ahmad and several judges, on the pretext that they are making efforts to ensure the judicial process is full and continuous in light of what Syria is going through, which gives the impression that the regime knows very well what this center is doing.
According to information obtained by the Syrian Observatory: the second in list of the Iranian centers that spread Shiism is the Iranian Cultural Center which -through seminars- introduces the Iranian culture and achievements of “Khomeini” revolution, this center seeks to penetrate the circles of Syrians, which makes it adopts all celebrations of the Syrian national holidays in Deir Ezzor Province such as Mother’s Day and Teacher’s Day, and usually its celebrations are held in the presence and care of Iranian personalities, and the pictures of “Khomeini” and “Khamenei” are strongly present next to Iranian flags at those celebrations.
On the 1st of April 2019, the Syrian Observatory learned that the so-called “Iranian Cultural Center” in al-Mayadin city organized a ceremony on the occasion of Mother and Teacher’s Day, which was attended by the leader of the Iranian militias in the city, figures of al-Baath party and tribal figures in the area, and it was met with popularly resentment, due to raising pictures of the Supreme Leader of Iran next to pictures of the president of the regime of Bashar al-Assad, which comes within the Russian –Iranian competition to build a larger supporting population than the other’s.
The Observatory’s information confirms that there is no accurate statistics for the numbers of those converted to Shi’a, but some informed sources indicated that their numbers in Deir Ezzor province reached 1710 Syrian men and young men of different ages, and the activity of Shiism is shown in several cities in the west Euphrates area in Deir Ezzor countryside, like al-Mayadin city and its countryside, al-Bokamal city and its countryside, and the villages of “Hatla”, “Marat” and al-Mesrab.
In Daraa province, sources of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights indicate that the known Shiite centers in the province are 3 affiliation offices in Sayda, Izra’a, and al-Sabil Neighborhood, and regarding the numbers of those converted to Shiism, informed sources indicate that their numbers are secret and no one knows them, and the reason for this is concerns about the lives of those who enlisted in these centers, where sources of the Observatory confirm that those who announce that they convert to Shiism or that they belong to these centers are killed, but the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitored the rise of number of volunteers in the Syrian south to more than 2910 people, where Iran is exploiting the Russian enemy’s preoccupation with killings and blood in the north of Syria, to empower its winning card in the framework of the cold war between both parties.
What do those who convert to Shiism or those who affiliate to these centers get or gain? This is the question revealed by the Syrian Observatory’s sources, where informed sources revealed that every one of them gets up to 120000 Syrian pounds, unlike other assistance presented by Shiite centers and Iranian affiliation centers, the sources also indicate that the Shiites were mainly present in Bosra al-Sham and Kahil in the eastern countryside as well as Sheikh Meskin and Izra’a, and most of their communities are now in areas of Izra’a and Sheikh Meskin.
According to informed sources who report to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights: the assassinations that took place in Daraa over the past weeks are all related to members of the Shiite centers whose identities have been revealed, including an attempt to assassinate an one of the affiliated persons in Jellin town, but the target survived, also the attempted assassination against the aid worker Abu al-Majd al-Ghanem on the 11th of June 2019, Sources of the Observatory also indicate that converting to Shiism operation is carried out in secret fearing the fate of death if their identities were exposed, and according to the sources, these Shiites hold their Syrian identities, but they do not dare to enter areas of the military security.
The Capital Damascus: The poor are the most affected by converting to Shiism
Converting to Shiism was not limited to the areas that were beyond regime’s control and which the Iranian militias helped in restoring them to Assad’s grip, but it also spread in the capital Damascus itself, for example, the most prominent activity of the Hussainiyas and Shiites in the capital is concentrated in Zain al-Abdeen neighborhood which overlooks Damascus, and it is considered one of the oldest of the 3 main areas of the Shiite community of Damascus people, and it has a Hussainiya for its followers, and according to sources of the Syrian Observatory: the neighborhoods of al-Amin and al-Jura which is now called the neighborhood of “Jaafar al-Sadiq” near the Great Umayyad Mosque in Damascus; there are Hussainiyas for Shiite people of Damascus, in addition to the presence of Shiites of non-Syrian nationalities who came to Syria for the purpose of fighting in the ranks of regime, and in the Damascus neighborhood of al-Amara; tens of Shiite families live and the Sunni mosque next to al-Sayyidah Ruqayya Shrine has been seized and converted into a Shiite Hussainiyah in the recent years.
As for Sayyidah Zainab area south of the capital Damascus which is about 15 kilometers southeast of the capital, there are hundreds of thousands of visitors who annually come to the tomb of Zainab Bint Ali god bless him, the area also is witnessing a great population growth because a large number of Shiite visitors settle there, also because a large number of the Iraqi Shiite visitors come to it.
Sources of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights confirmed that Syrian and non-Syrian Shiite delegations visit periodically and continuously the primary schools, especially in the areas that fell under control of the opposition factions during the revolution years, where entertaining courses are conducted for students and gifts are distribute to them; with the aim of spreading the Shiite doctrine, while the south of the capital area -according to sources of the Syrian Observatory– is witnessing the sale of real estate by the original owners to people belong to the Shiite militias in Syria, where the purchases are mainly concentrated in Hajira town south of the capital, which was taken over by the Shiite militias on the 2nd of November 2013, and according to reliable information obtained by the Syrian Observatory: people from Kafriya and al-Fu’aa areas most of whom belong to the Iranian-backed Shiite militias, are taking advantage of the decision that prevents residents of Hajira from returning; in order to buy their homes under threat of seizing houses, especially those which belong to opposition fighters and their families who were forcibly displaced to the Syrian north, and sources of the Syrian Observatory pointed out that the sales are not limited to local Shiite militias, but also include foreign Shiites of Iranians, Iraqis, and Afghanis, who wish to liver in the vicinity of Sayyidah Zeinab, which is considered one of the most prominent and largest Shiite-populated areas in the capita.
Iran’s imposition of converting to Shi’ism in Damascus has begun to bear fruit according to reliable sources for the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, where in the recent period it is noted that some poor Sunni families are affected by the Shiism phenomenon, especially with the provision of financial inducements, advantages, and grants to attract them to the Shiite sect by the Shiism spreading offices which are spread within Sayyidah Zainab area, where these offices provide financial and food assistance to anyone wishes to convert to Shiism, but despite all these efforts, the original families of the capital have not been affected, while the families which came from far countryside areas have been affected by this phenomenon, due to the poverty they suffer and their need for what Iran id providing to spread its Shi’ite ideology.
In the Eastern Ghouta, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights learned from several reliable sources that the regime forces in the past period have facilitated the entry to Shiite delegations to cities and towns of the Eastern Ghouta with the aim of distributing gifts to children in schools and holding recreational festivals, while delegations of Shiite women entered towns of Htaytet al-Turkman and al-Zriqa in the southern sector of the Eastern Ghouta northeast of the capital, with the aim of giving religious lessons to women in the area in some mosques, in order to spread ideas of the Shiism doctrine through these religious lessons.
In general, Shiism in the Syrian coast, the capital, and all over the Syrian territory is witnessing more and more strongly spread among both Sunnis on Alawites, where the main reasons for bowing to the operations of converting to Shi’ism are material causes, where the Alawites in the Syrian coast mostly refuse to spread Shiism despite the presence of this activity since before the Syrian revolution in 2011, and al-Rasul al-Azam Mosque and the Iranian Cultural Center were the most prominent centers of Shi’ism on the Syrian coast, and with the spread of Iranian Shiite centers all over Syria; the Iranian objectives have become clear in changing the sectarian structure of the Syrian people, in a way that makes it able to become a follower of al-Faqih regime in Tehran, and spreading the Iranian influence in Syria and making Syrians loyal to al-Wali al-Faqih’s regime.